by Nick Stovel
The very second I agreed to ride the Ball Buster, I knew I was in over my head. However, one of the unwritten laws of high school states, “If you agree to do something in front of your friends, do it, lest you be ridiculed for the rest of your time in school, and at every reunion afterward.” Palm Breeze Academy had a tradition where the incoming senior class would go on a field trip the weekend before the new school year. Following the grand opening of their new rollercoaster two months prior, Mount Olympus Amusement Park was chosen as our destination.
I remember the bus buzzing with commotion. The rusty metallic frame vibrated under the scorching August sun. On top of that, constant chatter pinged all around the inside of the bus, up and down both rows, across each bench. However, the sound that really stood out came from my friends chanting, “Austin’s gonna bust his balls! Austin’s gonna bust his balls!” for nearly the entire three-hour drive.
As a self-proclaimed nervous wreck, I flirted with the idea of causing a scene by standing up and demanding we pull over so I could step out and vomit. Instead, I stayed silent and watched through my window as we passed every rest stop, with our headstrong principal leading the way, determined to make our 9:30 am arrival time.
I was sitting at the very back, the last seat on the driver’s side, nervously glancing around, jealous of everyone’s excitement. Next to me sat Cody the Curious. His government name is Cody Jones, but he had this rather pesky habit of wanting to know the details of everything going on, always.
“So, what made you agree to ride the Ball Buster?” he asked. Of all my friends, I knew Cody the longest. “I mean, I remember you talking about your fear of rollercoasters since, like, fourth grade. Remember—”
“Yeah, yeah, I remember.” He loved mentioning the incident years ago in which we were in line for a kiddy rollercoaster at the South Florida Fair. After we got to the front and the coaster came screeching back in, a thin man in a light blue shirt hopped out of the front cart and spilled his guts right there on the platform. Needless to say, I bolted. “Look, it’s about to be senior year, I should probably get over my childhood fears, right?”
Before Cody could respond, a voice from the seat in front of us interjected: “Don’t listen to that shit. Austin’s a fuckin’ liar.”
I looked up to see the widest grin on the face of Ian the Instigator, birth name Ian Thomas. He entered the picture freshman year, after his family moved down from New Jersey. I remember him walking into lunch on the first day of school—his dark hair slick, oily, and reflective under the fluorescent cafeteria lights—wearing jet black sunglasses. After chopping it up with the cafeteria lady for ten minutes, he happened by Cody and me sitting at the end of the long wooden table at the back of the cafeteria. There was an empty seat next to Cody to which he plopped himself into. By the start of our next class, the friendship was solidified.
“This is about Millie, let’s be honest here,” Ian continued, then tapped his finger to his head. “I mean think about it, everyone’s gonna be talkin’ about their Ball Buster story after the trip. Austin doesn’t wanna be the only one to say ‘oh, I didn’t ride it’ and be known as a pussy to the rest of the school, and especially to her.”
I shook my head. “That’s not even remotely close. I just wanna conquer a fear, that’s all. It’s for myself, no one else.”
“I don’t know,” Cody started, “what Ian’s saying does make sense. You can’t tell me not lookin’ like a pussy didn’t cross your mind. It did, didn’t it?”
“No!” I repeated, with more angst fueling my voice. “Millie was not a factor in my decision, nor was anyone else from school.”
“That’s not what I heard,” said the voice from the bench directly across the aisle. The comment came from Reggie Wallace. Although technically not a regular in my friend group, overall, he was well liked due to the chill aura he projected. His voice was a low, soothing rumble, and his demeanor was calm and relaxed.
“Oh, not you, too,” I said.
“Shut up, Austin,” said Ian. “What did you hear, Reggie?”
He smiled. “I heard through the grapevine that our boy Austin over there is gonna ask Millie to ride the coaster with him.”
In perfect unison, Cody and Ian shouted “ooooh shit,” and Cody put his hand on my head and shook me around. After pushing his arm away, I glanced up and down the bus and saw other kids glancing back, trying to figure out the reason behind the commotion. Millie was at the front of the bus; it didn’t seem like she’d heard anything yet, but with the way these two were acting…
“Will y’all please shut up!” I pleaded. This, of course, was not taken seriously, and was met with the three of them cackling even more.
“Yo, we’re just fuckin’ with you dawg.” Reggie said with a smile. “For real, we just wanna see you out here winnin’, that’s all. I remember when she first moved here, we had biology together and you kept talkin’ to me about her. I can’t believe you still haven’t made a move. How long ago was that?”
Cody jumped in. “Three years ago.”
“Three years!” Reggie continued, “three years you’ve been talking about this chick and not to her.” Reggie twisted his body so that he was fully facing me, his feet stuck out in the aisle. “She’s just a human being bro, just spit your game and do you, it’s not that serious.”
“But he does talk to her, that’s the thing!” Ian shouted over the vibrating bus. “At least on Wednesdays and Fridays, he does.” He turned to me. “I see you sneaking out of lunch five minutes early on those days.”
“Wait, that’s why you leave lunch early sometimes?” Cody asked. “You’ve actually been shooting your shot?”
Before I could respond, Ian continued. “On those days, Millie eats lunch with the rest of the Honor’s Society in Mr. Wilder’s room, right next to the lockers. There’s a short window after the meeting when no one else is in the hallway. That’s when our boy over here likes to make his move.” He looked at me. “I see you, bro. Mr. Smooth Operator.”
I shook my head. “How on earth are you passing your classes with all the time you apparently spend spying on me?”
Ian chuckled. “Don’t worry, C’s get degree, my guy.”
I looked at Ian, who continued to smile throughout the conversation. I then glanced at Cody, then Reggie, then out the window at the green blur of vegetation we zoomed by along the highway. Had it not been for the constant hum throughout the bus, I was sure everyone would be in on this conversation. Eventually, I sighed and turned to Reggie. “How did you even hear about that?”
Reggie smirked. “So, you admit it’s true then?” He leaned slightly into the aisle toward me, his eyes refusing to disengage from my face.
“Okay,” I said, “I want to, yes. I’ve been thinking about it for some time.”
Reggie chuckled. “All right cool, cause I didn’t hear shit, so I’m glad you confirmed that.”
The three of them laughed as I rolled my eyes and wiped sweat off of my eyebrows. I peeked around again, hoping the knowledge of my plan wouldn’t spread to the front of the bus where Millie sat.
The dirty, mustard yellow contraption churned ahead on the faded, grey highway, until finally arriving at 9:30 am precisely, much to the pleasure of Principal Peterson. When we turned the final corner, the park entrance opened up big, bold, and beautiful. Ten pearl white arches stood out front, each about twenty feet tall and stretched thirty feet across. They lay in perfect symmetry, five on each side of the grand sign that welcomed visitors from all over the world.
“Fuckin’ Mount Olympus,” Ian squealed at the sight.
The bus halted next to the curb outside of the main entrance. As I stepped off, I felt a lump growing rapidly in my throat, pushing down on my Adam’s apple. The situation became real, no longer hearsay, nor theory. Once the entire senior class was situated, Principal Peterson, along with five chaperones, corralled everyone into a large circle, practically blocking the entrance, forcing bystanders to walk around or through us.
“All right, listen up” the principal started, talking through a megaphone. “Please see me or one of the chaperones for your ticket. Once you enter the park, you are free to go about. I ask that you simply stick together in groups of at least two to three. Don’t go anywhere by yourself.”
I stood with my friends towards the back of the large mass. barely listening, trying to distract myself from the mission, trying to stop the tingling sensation coursing through my palms and into my fingertips. However, all I could hear was the metal clanks radiating from rollercoasters and other rides inside of the park which caused my heart to race. The morning sun was shining against an aqua sky between spotty white clouds. Sweat began leaking from the creases of my armpits, the fold in the center of my chest, and along the grooves of my hands.
“Everyone is to meet back here, in this courtyard, at 6:00 pm promptly,” Principal Peterson continued. “There will be consequences for anyone who shows up even a minute over.” He stopped and cleared his throat. “Well without further ado ladies and gentlemen, you are dismissed. Have a fun time!”
After receiving our tickets, my friends and I turned and headed toward the gate. As we crossed the threshold and entered the park, we were greeted by a large, artificial mountain capped with synthetic snow. Standing atop the structure was Zeus himself, holding a blue, cartoon shaped lightning bolt in his right hand. “Welcome, humans” the god said in a raspy, rather unimpressive mechanical voice. His eyes lit up with blinking white lights, and every few seconds the arm holding the bolt would rock back and forth.
“Yo, I think I saw Millie heading toward the Ball Buster sign-up,” Reggie tapped me on the shoulder and said.
“The what?” I asked.
“The Ball Buster sign-up computer,” he replied. “You didn’t hear Principal Pete? The park is making everyone who wants to ride sign up for a specific time slot so as many people as possible can get a turn.”
I shrugged. “I guess that makes sense.”
“If you’re gonna ask her,” he continued, “you better do it now before she signs up with someone else.”
I took a deep breath, Reggie patted me on the back, and the four of us headed toward the sign up computer. We trekked through the park, past pretzel stands and gift shops, walked underneath massive metal tracks winding about, and even got splashed by a passing barge from Poseidon’s Sea Adventure. After twenty minutes of walking, I saw the tall, bright blue sign, with contrasted bright red letters making it impossible to miss: REGISTER HERE TO HAVE YOUR BALLS BUSTED! Underneath the sign was a blue tent, with multiple computers set up on two long, black tables.
“Yo, I don’t know about this shit, guys. I feel like I’m gonna puke. I don’t know if it’s because of Millie or cause of the ride, or both.” I finally said. “Like, I really don’t need to ride this thing, what’s it gonna do for my overall life, ya know?”
Ian slapped his hand on my shoulder. “Bro, chill. You’re asking a girl to go on an amusement park ride with you. What’s the issue?”
I sighed. “I mean, I don’t know.” As we approached the tent, I glanced about looking for Millie. However, despite the many heads bobbing about, none of them were hers.
“Right here,” said Reggie as he pointed to her name on one of the computers. “5:25, cart 6, seat A.” He slid his finger to the empty space beside her name. “And would you look at that, the seat next to her is wide open.”
I froze. “Yeah, but…” I started. “Like, shouldn’t I at least ask her first? What if she doesn’t wanna ride with me? I mean, why would she sign up by herself?”
“Oh yeah, sure bro.” Ian started, “why don’t you waltz around the park, take forever to find her, only to have someone else sign up in your spot. Makes perfect sense.”
“Honestly bro,” Reggie started, “she probably wants to ride other things first and that time just works best for her. I mean, it’s probably not even a big deal. You’re gonna be screaming the whole time anyways.”
“Yeah, but you would think she would at least ride it with Miranda,” I said, referring to Millie’s best friend.
“I don’t know, bro. When life gives you lemons…” Ian said.
“You better hurry though,” Cody started. “Word on the street is Jake Dent wants to ask her too.”
I scrunched my eyebrows. “Jake Dent? Fuck Jake Dent. Where’d you even hear that?”
“On the street, duh” Cody replied with a sarcastic shrug. “But yeah, exactly like you said, fuck Jake Dent. He’s got the queasiest stomach in the world. We all remember him at the sophomore retreat, right?”
“Bro, people who never even went to our school know about that incident.” Ian said.
“All right, okay, I’ll do it!” I said as I watched myself type my name next to Millie’s and press the giant “confirm” button.
With the sound of that click, my heart went from snare to bass drum. My nerves along with the sweltering sun worked in tandem to dehydrate me. However, since the time at that point was only 10:30, I found solace knowing that many hours separated me from the daunting task.
As we left the sign-up tent, we split into two groups of two. Ian and Reggie, being amusement park fanatics, wanted to ride the Ball Buster as soon as they could. They chose the earliest slots available, both at 11:05. Cody, although still a fan of rollercoasters, agreed to accompany me on some of the less intimidating attractions. He wanted to help me “warm up” to the Ball Buster, so we started with the easiest, slowest attractions in the park, and worked our way up. The first was “Hermes’ Highway,” a simulation ride in which you drive a mail truck that belongs to a company owned by the messenger god. Personally, I’d give it a ten out of ten for creativity, but a four out of ten for overall excitement. After that, we waited for about an hour to walk through “Medusa’s Mansion”, a haunted house themed attraction. Truthfully, the experience wasn’t anything to brag about. It sure as shit wasn’t worth standing in line for sixty minutes listening to Cody try and figure out how a ride named Ball Buster ended up in an Ancient Greek themed park.
After meeting back up with Reggie and Ian for a quick lunch, Cody and I went to catch an interactive show about Theseus and the minotaur. Despite these distractions, my mind and my nerves stayed fixated on 5:25 pm. With each passing hour, every burning minute, I knew I was drawing closer to the event, to the inevitable, and I would have to cash the checks my mouth wrote.
The hours passed, many rides were ridden, the sun went from bright yellow to deep amber, but eventually, the time was upon us. It was 5:15 as Cody and I made our way to the Ball Buster. The ride towered over the rest of the park, so finding it did not require a map. As we approached the tall, blue tracks, I could hear the screams of “fun” coming from riders as they zoomed by.
When we got there, I saw Millie in the distance standing by the ride entrance, and I figured it was time. With each and every step in her direction, my heart thudded like boulders being dropped from a skyscraper. When I was within ten feet of her, she looked in my direction, and a wide, sparkling grin stretched across her face.
“Austin, hey!” she said in her bubbly voice, as soft as a morning mist.
“Hey Millie,” I managed to gurgle out.
“I’m so glad we’re riding with each other.” She stepped closer and wrapped her arms around my shoulders and neck. “Miranda said Cody wanted to ride with her and told me that you wanted to ride with me. I would’ve waited for you earlier at the sign-up tent, but Miranda wanted to catch the Persephone show.”
“Wait, Cody did wha…” my voice trailed off as I looked over my shoulder. He had already walked off with Miranda, but he looked back and flashed me a cheeky smile.
“Yeah, he texted Miranda like as soon as we entered the park,” Millie said.
I smirked. “I didn’t even know he had her number like that.”
She laughed back. “Yeah, I think she has History with him and Reggie.”
Well played I thought.
When we reached the platform, I followed the track as far as I could with my eyes, anticipating the beast’s arrival. Millie bounced with excitement. My palms tingled.
“This is gonna be so fun!” she said.
Eventually, the cherry red, metallic worm slowly clicked its way to the platform. The ride stopped, people exited (no one barfed), and the time came for us to enter cart 6. I tried soaking in the moment as much as possible. Task one of two had been complete. Now, all I had to do was survive the coaster. After Millie and I were settled into the hard, plastic seats, the ride operator walked over and pushed the large black bar onto our chests.
“You ready?” she asked.
“As ready as I’ll ever be, I guess.” I replied.
I was told the ride lasted about two and a half minutes, but the first sixty seconds were rather slow. The coaster pulled off, jerking us a little before maintaining a comfortable speed.
A few seconds of silence passed, with nothing but rhythmic clicking filling the air. Then, Millie asked “So, Austin, you like me, right?”
My eyes widened. I was not prepared to confess, but in that moment, the notion seemed obvious. I fumbled my words for a moment, deciphering what to say. “I mean, uhh, what?”
“It’s okay, I figured as much.”
“Fuck,” I said, which was all I could say in that moment. “I mean, yeah I do, but I—”
“No really, it’s fine.” She interrupted. “You’re so sweet. Truth be told, I wish you had made a move earlier before I got a boyfriend.”
I sank. “Oh, you have a boyfriend?”
“Yeah, I met him at a festival over the summer. We exchanged numbers, and it kinda just grew after that.”
“Oh, I see,” I said. I felt flattened. Disappointed.
She nodded. “We hit it off right away, and we started texting like every night.”
I don’t wanna hear this shit! I nodded. “Damn, that’s cool, he must be really special then.”
She smirked. “Yeah, I guess you could say that.”
There was another brief moment of silence, where all that could be heard was click…click…click.
“I just don’t like most guys from school. I don’t know. There are a lot of weird vibes at PBA.”
I smirked. “Yeah, that’s accurate. Hope I’m not one of them.”
She grinned. “Nah, you’re okay. You’re gonna have to start talking to me for more than ten minutes a week though.” she teased.
“All right, fair enough.”
Another pause. Click…click…
“So, we’re still good?” she asked.
The coaster turned a corner and started to ascend. Millie’s hair fell back; her face was totally exposed.
I nodded. “Yeah. We’re good.”
The ride plateaued. Up ahead the track disappeared below the horizon.
“If I’m being honest though,” I continued, “it feels like my balls were busted before the ride even—”
Suddenly, Millie leaned over and kissed my cheek.
Before I could make sense of what happened, the rollercoaster shot forward with a thrust unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.Whether it was the speed or the smooch, my stomach dropped straight through my body, left behind somewhere on the track.